Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The gate crasher

Biren had no great attainments to boast of being born in a poor family, being an ordinary graduate and with no special skill to fetch him a job, let alone a decent one. But strange as were the ways of god, he was endowed with a tall physique, handsome look, a very fair complexion that was usually associated with the rich and famous. Though his hairline was receding, the constant twinkle in his eyes added to his charm that evoked an instant admiration.
He had a weakness for good food that was not available at his home. Being an unemployed graduate in Kolkata looking for job in the day time, his evenings were relatively free. The leisure in the evenings gave him time for some adventure and satiation of his taste buds by attending wedding receptions uninvited. His good look and attractive personality served as an easy passport to any gathering, big or small.
 He had a finely embroidered silk Khurta in cream colour and a nice dhoti with attractive border, though used ones, gifted to him by a well to do neighbour when Biren helped him physically to shift all the things to a new house. He used this pair of clothes sparingly once or twice a week depending upon the marriage receptions held in the vicinity.
He had a close friend who was driving an Innova car for a private travel company. The car did not sport any indication that it belonged to a travel company. Dressed immaculately, he would alight before the gate about an hour after the commencement of reception. His friend would rush to open the door for him making the onlookers believe he was someone in particular. He would be welcomed at the gate with someone sprinkling rosewater and another handing him a red rose for his buttonhole. With a slight nod of his head, he would nonchalantly walk in measured steps turning his head sideways on both sides.
Once inside he would quietly walk to one of the middle rows of chairs and settle down unobtrusively listening to music if any or the noisy band that was favoured these days. He generally avoided conversation and if unavoidable replied in monosyllables with other guests who gravitated to him thinking he is someone big. The larger the crowd he felt comfortable in merging with it. After about 30 minutes he would unobtrusively sneak into the dining hall and enjoy leisurely the sumptuous feast served generally in buffet style these days.
The Bengalis love for good food is best seen in their weddings and no effort is spared to make it a gala and rich fare. The spread invariably would be large suiting the different palates of guests. The popular and basic items that are never missed vary from the starters like mochar chop and macher chop and then luchi or koraishutir kochuri with aloo dum, potoler dolma, mishit pulao, fish paturi wrapped in banana leaf, Bengali mutton curry, chicken chaap and with desserts like rosogolla, sandesh and mishti doi. Biren would not hurry but do full justice to the fare offered relishing every item by sucking his fingers and with a satisfied nod of a gourmet
Once finished, he would linger around for a short while changing seats and make an exit quietly. Luckily he has never had any hassle so far with none detecting the interloper he was.
But he had a strange foreboding this day that things may not be as smooth as it had been thus far. Nevertheless, he assured himself that he can manage any eventuality his wit. As he alighted from the car in the early night and entered the reception hall nonchalantly, an elderly gentleman of about 65 with a bald head, dressed in a typical Bengali style with the end of his long dhoti tucked in the side pocket of khurta, welcomed him with a broad smile.
As he led him inside, he casually asked, “I am sorry I am not able to place you. Are you from the bride’s side or the bridegroom to enable me to get you seated with appropriate people?”.
“Thank you, Sir for the warm welcome. I can find my way myself and enjoy meeting people to whichever side they belong.”
“I am sure of that but you have not answered my question to which side you belong. I should not be faulted later that I have not taken care of a honoured guest appropriately,” the old man smilingly persisted.
 As generally bride’s people stand at the gate to welcome guests, Biren said he was related to bridegroom. The loquacious bald man asked him in what way. Not to be taken aback Biren said,” I am actually Tapas Ranjan’s cousin,” remembering the name displayed in flowers outside the banquet hall.
“How lucky. I was just now talking to his brother. He was sitting alone. Let me take you to him” he said as he held his hand and started walking to the front.
Biren, though alarmed at the prospect of detection, could not back out except saying, “Thank you. I will go to him after meeting my other friends.”
Meanwhile someone luckily for Biren, came rushing to the bald man and took him away on some urgent business. Biren sat in a nearby chair for a few minutes and with no sign of the bald man, he sauntered towards the dining hall. Luckily no one came and he could relish the hearty meal with hundreds of others.
It was at the ice-cream stall when he was enjoying faluda ice-cream that the bald man saw him. Profusely apologizing for leaving him abruptly, he said “Tapas’s brother is   sitting alone and I mentioned about you and he is eagerly waiting to meet you,” and literally dragged Biren who started sweating profusely.
Approaching a lean man in a colorful knee long khurta, the bald man said “Hey Binod, I have brought your cousin You don’t have to sit alone without company. Lucky I could see him at the dining hall.”
Binod turned at Biren and looking intently asked him, “Did you say you are a cousin of Tapas? I am his elder brother. I should know you better.” The bald man was craning his neck to hear what Biren was about to say.
Resourceful as Biren was, he replied without batting an eyelid, “We were actually roommates at Durgapur Engineering college. We used to be together always that others called us brothers. We used to introduce ourselves as cousins.”
“My younger brother never stayed in a hostel. He attended college from home. Tell me the truth. Who are you? I can call your bluff by taking you to Tapas.,” he said in an abrasive manner.
Meanwhile the bald man siganalled to a few youngsters who immediately crowded around them.
When Biren was mum in this piquant predicament, one of the youngsters pulled his Khurta and another put his hand around his neck. Even as Binod warned them not to touch Biren, one impulsive young man hit him on his head. Soon there was a loud commotion with Biren being called, a fraud, an impostor, a fake, a chain snatcher and someone said a kidnapper of young children. Blows started raining on him, when they heard a loud voice commanding “Stop it this moment, I say.”
They turned to see Tapas rushing in and hugging Biren said, “Sorry Ashok Da, I am extremely sorry for this unruly behavior on a mistaken identity. It is years since we met. How is your Ma?” He turned to his brother and asked him how he could allow these people to manhandle his friend.
His brother Binod said,” He was your roommate in engineering college hostel. When did you ever stay in a hostel? That was why I suspected and wished to bring him to you. Meanwhile this unfortunate thing happened. Sorry Tapas.”
Tapas clarified,” Ashok Da was in the hostel and I used to spend most of my time with him. He used to clarify all my doubts and would not go for lunch without me. I am greatly pained that this should have happened,” and told his brother to fetch the yellow gift bag immediately.
Asking others to disperse, Tapas asked him when alone, “It does not matter who you are. You have come as a guest on my wedding day. I do not wish any humiliation and that was why I pretended I knew you. Did you have your food?  I am sorry for this incident.’ Biren nodded his head in shame unable to look at straight at Tapas’s eyes.
Giving the yellow bag his brother brought meanwhile, Tapas asked him, “Was the food delicious? Thank you for coming. Here is my card. Do contact me after a month if you need any help,”
As Biren folded his arms to show his respect,” No, no, you are my elder cousin” said Tapas and bent deferentially.
When his brother asked after he left who he really was, Tapas replied, “He is one of the hundreds of guests on this happy occasion who came to bless me. Leave it a t that.”
Biren opened the bag at his house to see a silk khurta and a fine dhoti with colouful border. Tears started flowing at the magnanimity of Tapas and his effort to save him from humiliation, He decided to put an end to his detestable habit forthwith.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The budding romance

The sky was unusually cloudy though it has been a hot  day and it was getting dark. Renuka hurried her steps towards the bus stand not to miss the bus. There were not many on the road with only cars and trucks whizzing past. When she turned back to look for bus, she saw a tall young man about hundred yards behind her walking fast. She increased her pace to reach the stand that was slightly away. She could in a while hear his footsteps closing in on her. Her heart pounded in fear as the place was desolate.
Very soon he was by her side and she heard him telling, “Madam, do not be afraid as I am following you only to hand over the key chain you dropped when you took your mobile out outside your office. Please wait for a moment.”
She opened her bag, even as she was walking, to notice the key chain was in fact missing. She stopped abruptly and looked at the lanky handsome guy with a key chain on hand.
“Were you afraid that I was stalking you?l” he laughed gustily as he handed over the chain.
“To be honest, yes, especially as the road is deserted being Saturday. I had to finish some urgent work and was held up. Thank you very much as you had to literally run to catch me. But for you I would have been in a mess as this my room key,” she replied with a grateful smile.
“Do you work here? I am seeing you for the first time. I am Shilesh,” and offered his hand.
“Renuka, I work in ABC bank meant for IT companies here. Do you also work in this area?” she asked without taking his proffered hand.
“A sweet name. I do not work here but have some contracts with some companies here. I come here very frequently,” he said without elaborating on the nature of contracts. As he saw a bus approaching, he said, “Your bus I think. Let us hope we get to meet once a while.”
“Yes, my bus. Thank you very much for the help. Surely we shall meet again,” she replied as she hurried to get into the bus.
Two days later as she was coming out of the bank, Shilesh sitting on a motor bike hailed her,” Renuka, I never expected to meet you so soon. As I saw the name of bank, I remembered you and lingered for a while wondering whether you would come out. To my great luck you came out.”
“Good we could meet again. I cannot easily forget your helpful gesture that day.’
“Where do you live? We can have some tiffin and then I can drop you at your place,” he suggested.
When she mentioned the place where she lived, “It suits me fine as I live close to your place. We can talk at a restaurant closer to our area,” Shilesh said.
As they sat in a cozy corner, he told her with a smile “Order what you like for both of us and tell me all about you both official and personal.”
With sharp features, mesmerizing smile and curly hair that by habit he pushed back frequently, he cast a spell on her and poor Renuka could not but lower her eyes when he looked at her intently. Dressed in blue jeans and striped T shirt that indicated his muscular athletic body, Shilesh made a favourable impression on Renuka.
The server meanwhile brought two plates of crisp onion rava dosas with four different chutneys and another plate of four Mangalore bondas with their own accompaniments straight from the frying pan.
Looking at the spread with satisfaction, he asked her “Now tell me about you, Renuka, where are your parents living since you are in a hostel? Any siblings? How long are you in the bank?”
“They live in Tirupatthur.I have no sibling. They pay no heed to my request to come here as they have some lands nearby to take care of. I am with the bank for the last one year after my training. How about you?” she asked.
“Since you are in hostel, am I wrong in presuming you are single?”
She lowered her head without answering him but asked, “What do you do? Which place are you from? You told me you have contracts with some firms here. What sort of contracts? Are you an engineer?”
“I belong to Krishnagiri but live in Saligramam with my parents. My only sister is married and in Singapore. As I told you I have contracts with IT companies to keep their systems in good condition,” and added with a mischievous twinkle,” I am also a single like you.”
On hearing this, Renuka broke into laughter with Shilesh joining her.
 “Is the pressure in bank heavy on all days? Are there enough people to share the burden?  With so many IT offices close by, there must be rush of customers always in the bank. Isn’t it?” he queried
“Actually it is a small bank catering only to IT employees. Apart from me, there is a manager and one chowkidar. We hope to get one more assistant within a fortnight. It is mostly myself in the office whenever my manager goes out to local head office. On Mondays and Tuesdays a few customers visit to draw money. There is no ATM in the bank premises. The other days very few come with practically none on Saturdays. Most do transactions online. Actually it is boring some days,” she said with a smile.
“Lucky you are. I will try to meet you some day at your office when I am free.”
He paid the bill and dropped her at her place. Except asking her to hold his hip firmly with both hands, he did not seem inquisitive and talked generally about the condition of roads, water scarcity and total absence of rains. He seemed a very decent fellow and Renuka was impressed. They met again outside office on alternate days and the same routine was happily followed with a romantic turn.
It was Saturday past 12 noon. There was no customer since morning. The manager had gone out. The chowkidar was not to be seen and may have gone to take tea in the nearby shop. It was then Shilesh entered the bank and came straight to her counter. The usual smile was missing and he had a grim face.
“What happened, Shilesh? Was there any problem in the offices you visited? Why this stern look?” asked Renuka.
He did not reply but put his hand in the counter with a note.
She grabbed the note and read, “This is a hold up. Cooperate to avoid personal harm”
She looked at him unbelievingly and asked him, “Don’t be silly. Are you indulging in a prank or what?”
“I am dead serious. To prove my earnest, see this,” he said as he produced a glistening pistol. “Do not waste time trying to escape,” he warned
Her knees became weak in fear and shock and she held her head with both her hands looking at him in utter disbelief.
” No drama or screaming. Hand over the keys to the box on your table and to the safety room. If you cooperate, I promise everything will be taken care of smoothly and we can both leave the city to some distant place and live happily married. If there is slightest attempt to stop me, I will not hesitate to do what I must, I am ruthless by nature,” he warned without any ambiguity.
Sizing up the situation, she said,” OK, I am with you on this for the only reason I am madly in love with you. But be quick as chowkidar may come anytime. Just close the front door without locking and come inside.”
She gave the keys to the cash box on the counter and led him to the safety room and opened the door.
“Within five minutes you must come out. Don’t be greedy. I will keep a watch on the front door and signal you if chowkidar enters. There is a big bag in the corner. Be very quick,” she said.
“Thank you, Renu.I am also attracted to you and I promise to keep you happily. I never expected you would support me readily. I will be out in three minutes. Please keep a watch, my dear,” he said as he patted her cheek and entered the safety room.
As he opened the locker and found to his joy, stacks of notes of varied denominations, he heard a click of the door and turned to see to his horror the door of the safety room was shut. He heard the alarm shrieking loud alternately in high and low notes. “Dirty bitch, you will pay for this with your life” he swore in anger
Renuka was seen at the front door shouting for chowkidar and hailing others for help.A police van was seen  fast approaching the bank at a short distance.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

The mysterious black cat

This is a macabre presentation of a sad story. Those who have a dislike for black magic/witchcraft and who wish to have only positive feelings are requested to skip this story
“Suchi, what are you praying for with your eyes closed and palms held together? It is past 10.30 pm. Go to your room and sleep.,” said Rajan to his daughter of 10 years.
“The serial would be over now in the TV. Amma would be here anytime. I will go after she comes,” replied the girl.
“You have not answered my question. Are you afraid of something or what? You normally do not come here around this time and much less pray,” prodded Rajan.
She kept silent looking at the door of the living room for her mom. When Rajan nudged her with his fist, she started speaking. “You must have seen my best friend Kalyani.She had come for my birthday parties a couple of times. She told me three days back in confidence that her grandma is a victim of witchcraft and is under a spell behaving in weird manner and always with panic in her eyes. She has told me not to tell anyone and that the witch can sense it if I did. I could not sleep for the last two days and afraid to sleep alone. Would you allow me to sleep on the floor here?”
He pulled her close to him and put his arm around her and said, “What crap that foolish friend of yours is telling you. There are no witches or witchcraft. There is nothing to be afraid of. You sleep from today for as long as you wish between your mom and me on this bed. Don’t talk to that silly girl.”
“Appa, you had yourself told me long time back, may be last year, that your aunt, your dad’s sister, was a victim of witchcraft, lived a miserable life and died a nervous wreck. How do you say now there is no witchcraft?” countered the girl.
“I do not remember exactly. Whatever it is that must have been several decades back in a small town. People were not educated and believed in all hocus pocus. She must have been unwell and not treated kindly at her in-law’s place as she had no child. All hearsay and exaggerated versions when it goes around. I do not believe in all that. Sleep well assured that we are on your both sides,” Rajan told her in assuaging tone. Meanwhile his wife Roopa entered and raised her eyebrows questioningly at Rajan seeing Suchi lying in the middle of the bed. He signaled her to remain silent and lie down by Suchi’s side. The timid girl in the comfort of her mom’s hands on her soon lapsed into a deep sleep.
It was only next day during siesta after lunch when Suchi was out playing with her friends in the play area of the building complex, Roopa came and sat by his side looking at him intently.
“Why are you staring at me? What is bothering you?” he asked her.
“Nothing much, it is only the witch who harassed your aunt and about whom you had never told me but felt free to talk to the young child,” she asked tauntingly.
“Haven’t I told you about my aunt Vaidehi, dad’s sister? It is a long but sad story that happened long ago several decades back. She was the only daughter among the seven siblings. She was elder to my dad and his younger brother who was the last. It seems she was very beautiful lively girl and learnt to play violin very well. She stopped going to school after coming of age as was the custom then. Very talented in several arts, she was the envy of the neighbourhood. My grandfather was a clerk to a lawyer doing all his work but was paid small pittance besides several bags of rice after harvest. He had himself some tiny land for growing vegetables to supplement the income. My dad and his siblings studied in municipal school. Except my dad and his younger brother, all brothers did not attend college but took up jobs after class 11
Based on some distant relative’s suggestion, my grandpa married her off even while she was very young, selling the land and taking a loan from the lawyer, to the only son in a large family living in a small town on Cauvery bank. No enquiries were made about the family. They were supposed to be well to do which later turned out to be false. The young man Raman   worked as a clerk in municipal office and the family lived mainly on his income. He was handsome and mild mannered unlike his sisters who were plain looking like their mother Ponnamma. They were jealous of Vaidehi and disliked her from the day they set their eyes on her. Ponnamma was initially tolerant to the young girl as she brought with her some dowry, her mother’s jewelry, silver and brass vessels, silk saris and other things.
Except for three daughters in that family, the remaining two were unmarried. Raman’s father was rendered immobile after a stroke and was confined to bed. Ponnamma was harsh-tempered and overbearing. She pestered the young Vaidehi for bringing more money from her parents’ house. Knowing her father’s poor financial condition, she refused. Angered by this defiance, she was tortured, starved and made to slog all day in the kitchen while the others lazed around and relished finding fault with the girl. She was not allowed to go out or talk to girls of her age in the adjacent houses. Her sisters-in-law carried false tales about Vaidehi to their mother that soured the relationship further. To add to her woes, the girl was ridiculed for not conceiving even after two years.
One day when one of the daughters dropped a ceramic jar with pickles, she falsely accused Vaidehi of breaking. The angered mother-in-law scalded both her forearms with red hot ladle. Her screams brought the neighbours rushing to the house. She was threatened to stay inside and warned to tell Raman that she had burnt her arms accidentally while lifting pot from oven.
Raman could not believe that she could burn both her arms and suspected she was concealing something. After much prodding, she confided to him urging him not to mention about it to his mother. When he saw her the next day at the kitchen cooking in pain with bandaged arms and his sisters and mother laughing and talking in the hall, he unusually exploded in anger at their cruelty. Grievous mistake it turned out to be. Baffled at his immense anger towards them and sympathy for Vaidehi, they kept quiet then offering some lame excuses but determined in their minds she would pay heavily for it.”
“Did not your grandfather or any of the brothers contact Vaidehi aunty any time after her marriage?” asked Roopa.
“In fact my grandfather accompanied by my dad went to their place to invite them for a marriage in our house and to send Vaidehi along with them in advance. They were not allowed inside the house, nor Vaidehi allowed to see them. They were badly insulted and asked to leave the house. To add to insult, Ponnamma shut the door on their faces with a bang,” Rajan said.
“Did they come away without making enquiries?” Roopa asked.
“No, it appears my grandfather and my dad went to the adjacent houses to know about the wellbeing of Vaidehi aunt. They were not forthcoming initially afraid of Ponnamma, but one elderly lady gave an indication that Vaidehi was badly ill-treated and they were heartless people. She added that she had heard screams from the young girl in the afternoon when her husband was away and they too were not allowed to meet or talk to the young girl,” said Rajan
“Your grandfather could have with the help of police got the girl back with him. How insensitive to leave the young thing in that hell?” exploded Roopa in anger.
“Do not be in haste to criticize my grandpa.  In fact, when one of the neighbours suggested such a step, the elderly lady warned that the cruel family would only be too ready to throw her out and marry that spineless Raman to another girl for fresh dowry. In those conservative days, women suffered all indignities and physical pain to save their marriage and lot of restraint was shown in breaking marriages. My grandfather decided to find a solution after the marriage in the family was over.”
“What happened then?” nudged Roopa.
“It is the sad part of story and it is better you do not hear,” warned Rajan but continued when Roopa nodded her head sideways. “After they came to know about my grandfather’s enquiries with neighbours and the likelihood of his returning to rescue her from their clutches, possibly with police help, Ponnamma decided to engage a witch known to her maternal family from Kerala border. We came to know all these only much later when it was very late.
A deal was soon agreed upon for some unknown amount between them that by the effort of the witch, Vaidehi’s health would be seriously affected, she will become dull and depressed, will not eat due to lack of appetite and get weak, and with bouts of anger eventually leading her to commit a suicide or die. The witch in the guise of a relative was accommodated in the rear room adjacent to kitchen. That wily woman by name Ammini feigned to be very fond of her caressing her head with her palm and praising for her beauty and good disposition. She assured her that with her influence, she would make Vaidehi dear to all. Vaidehi having witnessed nothing but bitterness readily fell for her.
Meanwhile Ammini obtained through Ponnamma a bit of cloth from Vaidehi’s sari, a clump of her hair, a broken piece of her bangle. She covered a cotton girl doll with her cloth and pasted her hair on its head and tied over the waist a black thread after some incantation. It appears pins were pricked on doll’s head and stomach, red kumkum smeared on its body and black kajol on the face. This was hidden unseen in a corner in Vaidehi’s room.
In a week Vaidehi started having splitting headache that was unbearable. Raman applied Amrutanjan, pressed her head for long hours till she dozed off. She was chastised and beaten if she were late in kitchen for cooking. She lost her appetite and mere look of food was repulsive. She ate very little and the onerous work left her very weak. In three weeks she became thin and disoriented. She started forgetting and the sisters-in-law added to her misery by secretly adding extra salt or mirchi in the cooked food.
Vaidehi found to her horror one day that among the clothes left for drying on the clothesline only hers burning inside their hall. When she told Ammini about it, she comforted saying it is all hallucination and that she was not well.
Ammini and Ponnamma were happy at the outcome of their efforts. Raman took her to a doctor overruling his mother’s objection. He could not diagnose the problem and prescribed some tranquilizers. Her condition grew worse day by day.
Ammini on the pretext of giving a medicinal potion gave her something that worsened her condition. Ammini assured Ponnamma that in a fortnight the matter would could come to a head to latter’s satisfaction. Both of them went to Vaidehi’s room and took out the cloth doll from the hidden place. It was found swollen with disheveled look.
“How scary even to hear such happenings? How did you come to know of all these” remarked Roopa.
“All their cruelties came out at the end when they confessed. Listen to this. It was then my dad’s younger brother was found missing and all efforts to trace him proved futile. It later turned he was at Vaidehi’s place to make contact with her. He knew he would be thrown out and so stealthily entered the back yard and hid himself behind a tree. It was early evening. He saw Ammini dragging a crying Vaidehi by her hair much against her will to the last room. He made a noise of a bird that Vaidehi was used to. She turned her head to see her brother from the corner of her eye. Enthused by the sight of her brother, she pushed Ammini to get away from her grip. But weak as she was, Ammini dragged her in and closed the door.
He heard his sister’s long plaintive wail and was in a mind to break open the door. Afraid of drawing others attention, he waited for the door to open. After nearly 45 minutes, the door opened, Ammini came out followed by a weak black cat. Ammini went inside the house while the cat came running towards him and snuggled at his feet purring all the time. The boy dashed into the room to bring out his sister. To his shock she was not there and that was impossible as he kept continuous watch on the only door. He saw the cat hiding behind the tree and looking at him intently.
A sudden thought occurred to him and he slowly said to the black cat, “If you are Vaidehi, run around the tree thrice.” To his utter shock, the cat did so promptly and came running to him. He immdly took it in his hands and sought the help of neighbours narrating to them what had transpired as he saw.
They banged the door hard till Ponnamma opened after long delay. They forcibly entered the house, asked her about Vaidehi and started looking for her. When they drew blank, they asked for Ammini.Raman who had just returned from office forcibly shook his mother and asked, “Where is Vaidehi?? Where is that old woman you had brought? Tell me now or I will call the police.”
Meanwhile one of the neighbours shouted from the bath room that Ammini was lying inert with blood oozing from her head. Someone examined her and pronounced that she was dead. All eyes turned accusingly at Ponnamma and her daughters.
The neighbours threatened Ponnamma and her daughters of physical harm if they did not come clean. It was only then all their nefarious actions were known
My dad’s younger brother came back with the black cat to their place not knowing what to do. The cat jumped on grandpa and snuggled on his lap meowing all the time. With tears trickling my grandpa called the cat, and asked, “Are you really Vaideshi? Show me the place where you slept when you were here.”
The cat jumped from his lap and ran to one of the middle rooms in the house and sat at the place where she slept along with her mother. She ran to the puja room and stood before her mother’s photo.
“What happened thereafter?” asked Roopa.
“I have heard my dad telling of all attempts made by grandpa with tantriks/sorcerers in Kerala could not succeed in bringing her back to her original form. Grandpa died heartbroken within a few months with the cat following suit  in a few days refusing to eat anything,” concluded Rajan.
“Just one last question. Any idea about what happened to Raman after the sad incident?” asked Roopa.
“i am not sure but only a hearsay that he had committed suicide leaving the family in financial doldrums."
” Served them right,” Roopa exclaimed.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The crossing over

Jayadeb, when you are in Kolkata, do find time to visit your aunt Aatmaja.She is elder to me. We were very close in our younger days. She is alone after her daughter had passed away. I will give you name of the village. It is not very far from Dakshineswar as she used to visit the temple frequently,’ said Shubodra to her son and added with a smile, “Do not forget to take some good mishti. She has a sweet tooth.”
“I will try my best Ma to meet her, But I remember your telling that we have to cross a river through a bamboo bridge to reach her village. I am scared a bit but do not worry, I will call on her, “replied Jayadeb. He knew that there was no possibility of his mother ever visiting India again and meeting her cousin at this advanced age.
When his work mainly at Delhi was finished, he went to Kharagpur to deliver a lecture at his alma mater. He took an Uber taxi at Howrah station and gave the name of the nondescript village that was not far from Dakshineswar and home for the world famous Kali shrine. He bought on the way three kinds of sweets for his aunt whose face he did not recollect. To make things easy for the driver, Jayadeb told him about the access to village only through a bamboo bridge. The driver assured him that with this vital clue he should be able to find the place.
Generally, Bengalis are god fearing people and revered Kali Ma much. But Jayadeb was an agnostic though he did not mind his mother or wife doing puja or observing rituals. He took after his father in this trait much to the disappointment of the members on the distaff side.
After a few enquiries at teashops and from passersby, he alighted at a point close to bamboo bridge. The sky was overcast though it was mid-day but there was no sign of any rain. He walked a short distance to the foot of the bridge. The state of the dilapidated bridge shocked him and in many places he noticed there were wide gaps on the pathway with bamboos missing or holding on from one side rendering it totally unfit for children and elderly. The railings to hold on both sides were not strongly attached. This must be a very old bridge not maintained properly, he thought. There was no one on the bridge save one person who had almost reached the other end. This gave Jayadeb some confidence. There was a slight soothing breeze and he could see the bridge sway slightly.
He started walking slowly taking each step carefully. The bridge was about 200 feet in length. He gained confidence as he cautiously advanced. He could see no boat on the river near the bridge save two or three near the shore on the other side of the river. As he slowly treaded, he felt a drop of water on his face and the breeze gaining intensity. The bridge started swaying a little more like a swing frightening him no end. The river was flowing with swift current. Hearing a crashing sound, he turned behind in trepidation to see a part of the bridge turned at an angle of 450.There was no way of turning back after this development. The bridge in front swayed dangerously as the wind gathered momentum. Luckily there was no rain but only a mild drizzle making the bamboo pathway slippery. Confused and disoriented at the way things changed suddenly, he turned his head on all sides to find a way to escape.
It was then he saw at a distance a temple tower that was possibly not Dakshineswar temple. The sight of tower brought back to his mind the puja his wife did devoutly to Kali Ma back at home and he involuntarily uttered “Kali Ma, save me from this mess. You alone have the power to rescue me” Another sound this time of thunder and the bridge behind him at a distance turned from 450 to 900.He cried out aloudKali Ma Kali Ma, I seek refuge in you. Please do not  let me down.”
It was then he heard a squeaky voice from below, “Babu moshai, jump down, jump right away, the bridge is collapsing.”
Holding the railing he looked down to see in amazement a small girl of about 10 years dusky in complexion in a round boat waving at him and signaling him to jump. The water was about 15 feet below and he was hesitating wondering whether it was deep enough to avoid injury.
“Do not hesitate. You are in danger. Jump immediately.” shouted the girl frantically.
The next moment he jumped into the river and the girl quickly rowed the round boat near him and helped him inside even as the boat swayed. She took him safely, though the current and wind was heavy, to the shore near which he was dropped by taxi.
“What is your name? But for you I would have gone. I thank you very much for saving my life,” he said patting her.
“I am Shyama but my friends call me Bhavani too,” she replied with a bewitching smile that was heightened by the deep dimple on both cheeks.
He took out a 500 rupee note and gave her.
” No need to pay. I do not ply boat for money. When I saw you in deep trouble, I came to your rescue. Go to Dakshinewar.It is very near. Kali Ma is waiting for you. You can go to the other side of the river by a steel bridge,” she said and gave that enchanting smile again as she ran away towards the river.
Jayadeb stood transfixed looking at the receding girl. Suddenly she could not be seen. He walked towards the shore to see the boat. The boat too was not there. How could she and the boat vanish in a trice, wondered Jayadeb as he walked to the road. An unconscious change had come about him and he felt he was strongly pulled by Kali Ma at Dakshineswar. He took a bus.
Once inside the temple, he stood entranced, even as the bells were clanging loudly along with the blowing of conches, before Kali Ma’s captivating presence. He could not see the traditional dark image with red eyes and protruding tongue but that of a dusky girl with dimples and smile of enthralling beauty. He realized Her infinite compassion and stood a transformed man.
He stayed for two hours before taking a taxi to his aunt’s house. When he met her with fresh packets of sweets and Mishti doi and narrated the incident, aunt was quick to rebuke him telling,
“Did no one caution you that the bridge is in disuse and no one uses it for a long time. The figure of a man you said you saw on the bridge could be a ghost of one of the many who lost their lives by falling from the bridge. It is not Bhavani the girl who rescued you but Bhavadarini Herself in the form of a girl. You are so blessed to have spoken to Her, even patted Her and had Her darshan in real. Shubodra, my cousin, is lucky indeed to have you as son."

Sunday, April 7, 2019

The mysterious intruders

Meenu breaking the silence during their long drive back home from Pondicherry said,” Maha, it was an awesome break from the routine for three days. I loved the beach most with its golden sand and the blue water. The surreal sunrise and sunsets with the cool breeze really fascinated me no end. I thoroughly enjoyed our long walks and standing on the water as the waves swept our feet. How did you enjoy?”
“Call me a foodie or a laggard, I loved our resort best, its swimming pool and the delicious food of different cuisines they served. I would have loved to stay longer but for the office tomorrow for both of us,” replied Mahalingam.Meenu made a grimace as he laughed over his own remark.
It was past 10 pm when they reached their villa in the gated community. The delay was due to dinner at a wayside hotel where the service was as poor as the food served. Meenu opened the house with her keys as Mahalingam brought the boxes inside. Totally exhausted they hit the bed soon after a wash and change.
It was 7 am and the maid had not turned up. She often played truant coming up with lame excuses. The house looked dirty with dust and the air was stale. She decided to work from home for the day that gave her some flexibility. Maha will have to make do with cereal and coffee for breakfast, she decided. As for her lunch, she can always whip up maggi or some such stuff, she thought. She wished to clean the house first after Maha left for office.
It was a large single floor house at the rear of the complex with boundary wall running adjacent to it. The house was spacious with a drawing hall, living room with a master bedroom and two bedrooms and a small room doing the duty of puja and lumber room. Before she left for vacation, she had just closed the windows and the doors of all the rooms to prevent mice. The doors could be opened by just pushing them. She opened the doors of all the rooms to let fresh air enter before she came to the large guest bedroom at the rear. 
To her surprise the door was ajar. She remembered distinctly she had closed each room. Wondering, she went inside and switched on the light and fan. She looked around the room, the queen-sized bed neatly covered, the table and two comfortable chairs all in position. She looked at the floor and found a glittering ear stud without the screw on the floor. It was not hers but a cheap tinsel. Shocked she looked closely again and found a dried string of jasmine flowers by the side of pillow and banana peels under the cot. She was certain these were not there when they left. Who could have entered the house when both keys were with her and her husband?
“Maha, something suspicious I find in guest bedroom as if someone had entered in our absence. Can you please come here immediately?” she told him over mobile.
“What are you blabbering? How can anyone enter the house when both the keys are with us? When you opened the main door, it was locked. What suspicious you are referring to? It is a gated community and strangers cannot enter easily,” said Maha with some asperity in his tone at being disturbed.
“As if I do not know all that you are telling, why don’t you listen carefully? I found the door for this bedroom ajar when all the other doors remained closed as we left them before we left. More puzzling is that a bright ear stud without the screw was on the floor. That cheap stuff is not mine. A woman must have been there. What is more shocking being a string of jasmine flowers by the side of pillow? I suspect the bed has been slept upon. What do you say now? Please come immediately. The maid is also not there. I am alone.”
“Meenu, I have just come to office after three days. There are so many pending urgent issues and meetings. We both can examine leisurely in the evening. I cannot leave office now. When we two have the two keys, how can anyone enter unless he broke into the house,” asked Mahalingam.” Do you suspect para normal happenings or what?” he added
“Be sensible for heaven’s sake. Tell me first whether your set of keys are with you? I have mine in my hand.”
“One moment, let me see my bag,” he said. There was a long interlude. He had disconnected the phone. Meenu impatient as she was dialed him repeatedly when at last he came on line and said, “Meenu, it is really baffling. My set of keys are not in my bag. Where could they disappear? I have not taken it out after we left for Pondicherry.Didyou see them anywhere?” he spoke in contrite tone.
“Funny you are asking me about your keys. Whoever has entered must be a young woman, not from well to do class and the jasmine flowers on the bed leads me to think of a male companion too. Something fishy has been going on and now you tell me that your keys are mysteriously missing.” She paused for a moment when he interrupted,” Are you suspecting me?”
“What a stupid question when you were with me all these days? Please give some excuse and come here for one hour. I am afraid to be alone till we find out how it happened. I am not going into that room till you come,” she said with a finality.
“When she opened the front door for Mahalingam, she said, “Make no noise. Have this stick with you for any emergency.” They walked gingerly into the room and switched on the light. Meenu had not disturbed the things. He saw the stud, the flowers by the pillow and ruffled sheet at one corner and two banana peels on the floor.
“I agree someone has entered the room, may be with a companion but it surprises me how they could have entered. Let me fix the spare security camera I have above the door of this room inside. Whoever walks in and comes near the bed would be caught. We should be able to find out the culprit. But I honestly feel nobody has broken in,” he assured her. After fixing the camera they just closed the door as they walked out. 
“I am afraid to stay alone when you are away,” she said.
“I will drop you at your mom’s place. I don’t mind the slight detour. I will pick you in the evening on my way back from office. You are saved of the cooking chore,” he said with a smile.
As she got down at her mom’s house, she pleaded with him, “Won’t you come by 4 pm today. I wish to be back home before it gets dark,” He patted her and said,” It is done.”
When they entered the house at 5pm they rushed to the guest room. The door was again slightly open. Meenu held back Mahalingam and gave him the cricket bat she had brought from her mom’s place. He opened the door slightly further and cautiously peeped in. Finding none, he beckoned Meenu to come inside. She opened the closets to find the clothes and sheets disturbed. She saw under the cot and was relieved to find no one. Emboldened she surveyed the bed. Lo, there was a scarf, some towels, a hand bag, an empty perfume bottle and a county cap with some on the bed and the rest on floor. Strewn on the floor were also a few peanut shells and a broken piece of glass bangle. There was no doubt now that there were occupants in the room. and the second set of keys are in someone’s possession. Meenu suggested that police should be involved.
“Don’t be in a hurry. We shall check the contents in the security camera and then go to police with the evidence,” remarked Mahalingam.
“Meenu, come here quickly to see the burglars caught virtually red handed,” he was shouting at the top of his voice from his room. He kept his face seriously as she walked in to see the images in the monitor.
“Is anything seriously wrong?” she asked and turned her face to the monitor only to break into roaring laughter along with Mahalingam. Two monkeys were playing on the bed, pulling towels and sheets from the closet and trying it on them. They were seen eating peanuts and scampering around within the room. The monkeys had escaped evidently from a roadside showman.
Wondering how they came in, Meenu went to the attached bathroom. On lifting the window curtain she found the window open with space between steel bars sufficient for the animals to enter. She regretted for not closing the window before she left for vacation. It was only when Mahalingam told her the sinister part of the incident that the owner of the monkeys was the real thief by training the monkeys to enter empty houses and bring things outside. They went out and saw on the ground by the window and the wall some things taken from the closet and discarded by him. When they went to telephone desk to make a call to policemen, Meenu found her husband’s set of keys hanging on the key holder attached to wall above the table. When she turned to Maha, he was making a sheepish grin.
It is a matter of small consequence to the story that the owner of monkeys was caught soon by the police.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

The mysterious mirror

“Annamalai, when are you going to India?’ asked his mother abruptly as the family was watching TV in the living room.
Startled, his wife turned and asked ”Are you travelling? You did not tell me about your trip.”
“I had casually mentioned a fortnight back to amma about a likely trip to Bengaluru. It was finalized only this afternoon,” he told her. Turning to his mother, he said, “Next week, is there anything you want from India?”
“No, I need nothing. When you happen to be in Bengaluru, why don’t you visit our village near Karaikudi for a day and have a look at our ancestral house. It is several years after your father’s demise, we haven’t visited it. True, a distant relative is there as a caretaker. I wish that you see personally whether it is well maintained and if there are any willing to buy it. No point in retaining it when there is no likelihood of your going back to India” said his mother.
“I will try if I get the time,” he assured her
As he was travelling by car in the dusty road towards his village, he recollected his childhood trip as a young boy of seven years and vaguely remembered the spacious house with well polished wooden pillars in the front porch and inside in the large central courtyard that opened to sky in the centre. It had several big rooms adjoining the corridor that ran along on all the four sides. There was a large garden with several trees and a large well on the rear of the bungalow. The floors were tiled in various patterns and colours giving the whole house an old world charm.
As he had informed the caretaker relative in advance, he and his wife received him deferentially on arrival.
As he stood in the courtyard and surveyed the encircling wide corridor and the well maintained dust free pillars and doors, he could not but exclaim, “Uncle, it is more than two decades since I visited this place. You have maintained the house so well with not a speck of dust anywhere or broken plaster on the walls. The paints also look fresh and the varnish on the pillars is shining.”
“Your grandfather (Aiyya) had left a corpus before he went to Penang and the interest from it is used for maintenance of the house,” the relative said.
“That is thoughtful of him though I wonder whether my mother is aware,” he said as he looked around with pride at the beautiful old heritage house, a relic of the fading past.
“I will show you around the house in the morning. The room with the light on is meant for you. You may like to wash and change the dress before dinner. It is ready,” he said as he carried his box to the room. He looked at the triangular pirai (niche) on the wall by the side of the door and asked “Do we still keep oil lamps there?”
He smiled and said, “No, the old practice is gone. It dirties the wall with smoke.”
The dinner was typical South Indian type a bit spicy and hot for Annamalai but seemed tasty nevertheless from the way he relished the food. Aunty, a soft spoken lady, smiled with pride when he said that he had never tasted a meal like this and that the food served at Indian restaurants in US was a pale apology to this authentic Chettinad version.
When he walked along the corridors to his room on the other side, he found all the doors of the rooms just closed while the one next to his was locked with an unusually big brass lock.
He lingered for a moment outside the room and asked, “Uncle, why is this room alone locked with a big lock. Does it contain anything precious?”
“There is nothing precious inside though there is a big story behind the locked room. I can tell you tomorrow morning,” he replied.
“Why not now?”
“There is no light there and there is a story revolving around a strange mirror inside. It may be dusty too as it is opened only occasionally. I will have it cleaned early in the morning. Kindly wait.” Annamalai did not press further.
As they sat in the well-furnished room and chatted generally about the village, weather and crops, Annamalai abruptly asked,” It is agreed that we shall be seeing the mystery room tomorrow. But what holds you from telling me now what the story is about the mirror. I am very curious to know.”
“No problem in telling,” said the uncle and turned to his wife to tell, “You may go and close the kitchen.”
He kept silent for a few moments before he started speaking, “There is a big mirror in that room  2.5x 5 feet in an artistically sculpted wooden frame. I think this was brought by aiyya (grandfather) from Penang where he did business when he finally returned to India. It is a high quality mirror and kept in his wife’s room for her use. Your father had already settled in US. This adjacent room it appears was used by your grandmother.”
 “What have these things to do with the mirror?” interrupted Annamalai.
“Let me quickly finish. Be patient. After your grandmother’s demise, aiyya managed to live alone with a cook to assist him. I came here to help aiyya just a couple of years before his demise. Aiyya did not enter that room often and it was mostly locked. Once an elderly relative of aiyya from his wife’s side visited him and stayed for a night. He was allotted this room for his stay as it had good bed. It seems the next day when the relative was about to leave, aiyya went to his room and saw the relative standing before the mirror. Aiyya noticed the relative’s reflection on the mirror was strangely very dull almost blackish grey. Aiyya was shocked but did not express anything.
The next day evening he got a telegram that the relative passed away suddenly with no ailment whatsoever. Those days there were no great medical facilities and people relied on local Ayurvedic doctor, mostly a quack. Aiyya was greatly shocked and the thought of his relative’s dull image on the mirror came to his mind. He instructed the cook to cover the mirror with a bedsheet and keep the room locked.”
“This is crazy. Let me see the mirror tomorrow,” Annamalai said
“Surely, let me finish. Six months later a Tashildar friend of aiyya visited the village on some work and expressed a desire to stay with aiyya. He could not refuse his friend and gave the only furnished spare and locked room for his night’s stay. The next morning when aiyya went in, he saw his friend standing before mirror after removing the bedsheet. Aiyya craned his neck to find to his horror Tashildar’s image very dull as he saw once earlier. He led him out immediately to the dining table for breakfast. He was a worried man after his friend left though he remained silent mostly. It was on the third day aiyya got the information that his friend Tashildar was bitten by a snake in the field and had succumbed to it.”
“My god! It seems a strange coincidence. What happened next?”
“Aiyya was now certain that the mirror was ill fated and reflected a dull image of persons whose death was very close. This information had leaked out in the village and no one entered the room even when the mirror was covered. This gradually turned mischievously into a story that a maid who worked in aiyya’s house had committed suicide in that room for reasons not known.”
“Have you seen any ghost movements or unusual happenings here?”
No, not even once. After aiyya’s death, your dad wished to sell the house. Some parties expressed interest initially to buy the property but backed away once they heard the gossip from local villagers. One or two who were ready bid a very low price. Your dad decided not to sell immediately but sadly passed away in two years before disposing the house,” he concluded.
A faint thought crossed Annamalai’s mind whether the caretaker would have had a hand in the floating of rumour and the mystery behind the mirror with an eye on the property remaining unsold.
“OK, let me sleep. We will examine tomorrow though I think the mirror has nothing to do with deaths. One thing, do keep the lights on in the corridor, “said Annamalai.
He got up at 7 am and quickly surveyed his grandfather’s room. He must have been a methodical and organized man. He found the writing table with a few books neatly kept, a type writer, pen stand with pens and sharpened pencils, writing pad and a sunglass. There were two wooden bureaus with his clothes neatly kept. His esteem for aiyya went a notch higher.
After breakfast, the caretaker-relative took him to the adjacent room. It was evidently swept clean and dusted. The mirror stood prominently in one corner adjacent to a dressing table. It was still covered with a bedsheet. Annamalai removed the bedsheet and found the mirror spotlessly clean. He had suspected it might have been dust laden and dirty but It was a high class mirror and the reflection was excellent. He wondered how this mirror can reflect a dull image. His logical and rational mind could not accept any mysterious power to the mirror.
He turned to caretaker and asked him,” Uncle, how was aiyya’s eyesight? Did he comb his hair regularly before the mirror? Did he use any spectacles?”
“Aiyya was totally bald and had no hair. He never came to the mirror. I think his eyesight was good.”
“Did he go out much during day time as I saw a sunglass on his table?”
“No, he rarely went out but had the strange habit of wearing the sunglass during his waking hours possibly to hide the squint in his eyes. He removed it only when he went to bed.”
Annamalai laughed loudly and said,” I think I know now. Anyway do not cover the mirror or lock that room. Bring the mirror now to the corridor and keep near the entrance to enable every visitor see the mirror. I do not foresee a dull image anymore.”
The mirror was brought to the corridor near the entrance and remained uncovered.
Annamalai was satisfied and ready to leave to catch his flight later in the day. He thanked the caretaker couple profusely and took a final look at the mirror. The caretaker too joined him to face the mirror. Lo, what is happening and why is the mirror dim and our images dull worried Annamalai with his eyes narrowing in fear. There was a stunned look on caretaker’s face too.
The horn from the waiting taxi hooted in hurry.